Marta knew she was a junkie, had known it long before her veins had collapsed into black ruins. Her friends in college could have a few drinks, but she would always keep going until she woke up in the ER with a plastic tube snaking down her throat, pumping out the toxic contents of her stomach. She sat on a cracked curb as she waited for Desmond to finish with a client, her head resting on bony knees as she curled and uncurled a strand of her dull black hair around her finger, the humid night air thick with the smells of sweat and her own anticipation. She stared into the scratched face of her phone at a picture, and couldn’t help but think about when everything had started to fall apart.
Marta remembered that the library had been deserted except for her and an ancient librarian with rheumy eyes like saucers of spoilt milk, everyone else that had been there earlier in the day had long since gone. She remembered she’d just needed a B to keep her loans and her head had been buried in a dusty textbook. She’d tried studying on her tablet, but she found herself getting too distracted by friends messaging her. She’d hoped the physical book would get fewer messages, and maybe the odd papercut would keep her awake. She’d yelped when a hand like dry autumn leaves brushed her shoulder.
“Shhhhh,” whispered the librarian reflexively. “Closing time.”
Marta looked down at her textbook that was still on chapter 3, and had to swallow hard to keep from crying. “Please, just a bit more time. I could lock up if you want to go.”
The librarian’s face cracked into a thin smile. “If you don’t know it yet, you’re not going to sweetie,” she’d said, and shuffled away to turn out the lights.
Fat tears tumbled down Marta’s face and she ran out, almost smashing into Sam in the hallway. Sam grabbed her shoulder as she tried to go past, his hand like a vice. “I saw you in the library,” he said simply, not seeming to notice her struggling. He held up a baggie with two small white pills and added, “Study aid?”
It was stupid, and Marta had known it was stupid, known she couldn’t trust herself to take anything harder than Aspirin. Even so, she’d taken the pills, only asking what they were after she’d downed both. Sam had given her a Cheshire Cat grin, and told her they were called Cynosure, just an all-natural brain booster that contained a few herbs that the Chinese or Japanese (Sam didn’t seem clear on the distinction) had known about forever. Oh and maybe just a touch of engineered proteins that could, temporarily, cause her brain to sprout new dendritic spines like dessert flowers after a rain storm. Sam had assured Marta that this would mean she’d remember everything she learned in the last few days perfectly, and anything related to that. Whatever junk the Cynosure really had in it, it worked, her IQ was bumped up, right along with her concentration and memory and she ended up with an A on the test.
She remembered her professor pulling her aside to congratulate her on her grade after the test marks were posted, remembered how everyone started to look at her for the first time, how they wanted her to be in their study groups when before they wouldn’t even talk to her. The praise and respect filled her up for a little while, made her feel like the successful person everyone wants to be. Marta built a whole life on Cynosure– how could she go back to the sluggish dullard she’d been? Richard, her boyfriend at the time she’d met Sam, became her husband and she took a job at a securities dealer as an analyst. The job and the marriage were both hard, and she didn’t dare stopping taking the Cynosure for fear of not being able to meet the harsh expectations of one or the other.
Richard had known about the Cynosure but didn’t care as long as she was keeping it together. Marta remembered being so careful at first, but after her daughter Elsie was born she’d started taking more exotic things, and Richard eventually left with their daughter after he’d found Marta pricing out a pharma-printer online. Things spiraled out of control for Marta then as they always did, and she’d ended up busted for trying to buy Cognizance, a relaxant and temporary amnesia inducer, from a greasy street dealer covered in open sores that turned out to be a snitch.
I could use some forgetting now Marta thought to herself as she sat on the street corner and watched the sun dip below the boarded up buildings of the city’s core. Marta saw that Desmond was finally done, and she walked over to the bent and broken streetlight where he did his business. He took the crumpled bills from her hand and pocketed them with a flick of his wrist. Desmond’s speed, especially considering his bulk, always surprised Marta. She waited, but Desmond just stared and stared at her over gold-rimmed glasses and his narrow black eyes seemed to peel back her skin like they were scalpels cutting into a dissection rat. Marta’s bloodshot eyes danced nervously, the seconds piling on top of each other like a slow motion car accident.
“Please, Desmond,” Marta whined when she couldn’t take the waiting anymore, broken glass crunching underfoot as she shifted. “Just give me the stuff I paid for.”
“It doesn’t even cover what I gave you last time,” he said slowly, as if to a child. “Unless you got more, piss the fuck off,” he added, and began to turn away.
Marta grabbed at his shoulder. Before she could blink, her head was smashed into the pavement, blood already pouring from her lip where Desmond’s meaty hand had struck.
“You don’t ever fucking touch me,” he spat, disgust and pity warring across his face. He reached a hand inside his suit and Marta cringed like a kicked dog. He drew out a filthy baggie with two patches of Founder inside, tossed it at her, and walked away.
Her hands trembled so bad she could barely get the first patch out. She slapped it hard against her neck. Liquid electricity surged through her, lighting up black veins like a rising sun inside her chest. Wasted muscle turned from rags to steel cords under her skin and she balled up her hands, and flung a fist at the brick wall at the end of the alley, hard as she could. The bricks exploded as if they’d been hit with a mortar.
The strength didn’t last. The stuff was just a taster — she’d be in freefall soon. Her hand was beginning to throb, splintered brick imbedded in it like broken bones bursting through papery skin. It was stupid, but Marta’s veins even seemed to ache with a gnawing hunger. Marta fingered the baggy in her pocket with its one remaining hit, but left it where it was – she’d need to make it last and then she’d need more, something stronger. She almost turned around and went back to Desmond, but stopped herself. If she went back without any money, he’d kill her for sure. She needed cash, and that meant Mr. Papadopulos.
It was late, but when she got there the antique electric sign was blinking “Papadopulos Pawn”, and emitted a buzz like an angry beehive was trapped in its neon tubes. She went in and the fat Greek behind the counter gave her a wide grin.
“Marietta, my little flower,” he exclaimed.
Marta smiled, and drew her battered phone from her pocket. “I need to sell this Pappy.”
He took the phone from her gingerly and turned it over, his hands making it look like a child’s toy, and inspected it from every angle. “It real antique,” he said. “Most kids today get their brains wired direct. Some olds like us looking for retro models though. This beat up, but I sold worse.” He tapped the screen to activate it. A lock-screen with a little girl with sad eyes and curly black hair sprang to life. He squinted at the phone and then at Marta, seeming to notice for the first time her sickly condition and the patch stuck to her neck. “You’re sure you want to sell?”
She stared at her feet, trying to decide. The phone was the last thing she had from when she and Richard were still together, and had the only photos of her daughter Elsie that remained to her. “I’m not…I need…” she began when the phone chirruped with a text message. She quickly grabbed it back and read the screen, “im scard mom wen com home?” It was from Richard’s phone, but must be from Elsie.
Mr. Papadopulos saw it too and clasped both of his massive hands around Marta’s skeletal fingers and the phone. “Marietta, please,” he said, his voice quavering. “You stay here, we call police. I help you.”
Marta stared at him, shocked. Mr. Papadopulos had always been kind to her, but had never once offered any help her before. Was she really that bad looking? Marta shook herself, refocused on her daughter’s message. He just thinks I’m too week to protect her, she thought, and tore her hand out of his grasp. Maybe he’s right, but I know how to be strong. Marta turned from him and headed for the door, stopping just long enough in the entrance to slap the second patch on her neck.
She burst out of the pawn shop, the door flying off its hinges into the night, her heart beating hard, pushing adrenaline and Founder into legs that became a blur of motion. She’d let her daughter down once, but wouldn’t waste this chance to make it right, to show them that she was strong, that she didn’t need anyone’s pity. Streetlights strobed past as she ran, and the potholes and slums of the rotten city core melted into the greenery of the suburbs. She stopped only when she was standing in the shadows across from her Richard’s bungalow, its dark windows covered with insulating plastic, and its yard full of bright plastic toys. She gaped at the rows of delicate tulips in the flowerbeds—they weren’t there the last time she was outside looking in. Richard was colour blind and had never cared about flowers before, had actively disliked them in fact and considered them to be jokes played on him specifically by a cruel universe. It had been only six months since the last time she’d crept outside his house – could so much have changed?
Marta wrenched her attention away from the strange flowers and began to stalk from the shadows to the house, ready to tear it apart if she needed to. She’d barely taken a step toward the house when a car with headlights like magnesium flares cut through the gloom, came down the street towards her then pulled into Richard’s driveway. Marta crouched back into the shadows and watched as a tall blonde woman in a rumpled nurse’s outfit with a fresh flower pinned to the jacket stepped out of the car, stretched, and walked into the house, stopping only to pick up a plastic unicorn from the lawn. The house burst into life almost as soon as the flower lady entered, warm lights came on inside that made Marta squint.
With Founder-heightened senses, Marta heard the patter of tiny feet on creaky hardwoods inside the house, and then heard Elsie squeal, “Mom!”
Marta collapsed to her knees, all the strength gone from her as she sobbed into the cold pavement. She hadn’t known how badly she craved that one word from her daughter, that one glorious word that would mean everything was all right. But the text hadn’t been for her, it had been from Elsie to her real mother, the flower lady. She let the phone drop from her hand, suddenly too weak to hold it, heard its screen shatter on the pavement a long way away, and turned her back on the lights and the girl that had once been her daughter. Elsie needed someone strong, and Marta realized that was someone else, realized that she’d never been strong, not even on Founder. Desmond and Mr. Papadopulos had known, had seen right through her and been right to pity her.
She limped down the street toward the city’s core as shards of light from the rising sun stabbed through breaks in the houses. It felt like knives were twisting in her knees and ankles with each step. She hoped that Mr. Papadopulos would still have his shop open, would still be willing to help her. Maybe it wasn’t too late to be strong. And maybe if she could be strong she could become mom to her daughter again.